The edge of their seatsLessons from Gilmore, Australia’s most marginal electorate
“We’re all conservatives now”
GUY RUNDLE: Why make the Senate run now and why launch a political party? Is this simply because of the legal troubles in Sweden or is this part of a wider political strategy?
JULIAN ASSANGE: We announced this in early 2012 before I came into the embassy. At that time we were concerned that the battle between the two major parties in the Australian election would suck out all the oxygen for all the issues that we hold dear, such as freedom on the internet, protection of journalists and whistleblowers, and of course the protection of WikiLeaks as an Australian organisation itself. Instead, the Australian public would be presented not with an extreme Right or an extreme Left but with an extreme centre.
We thought we would announce my intent to run a Senate campaign ... Speculat[ing], without any measurement, we’d have some 5% of the vote, although we knew the support levels were much higher – about 50% of the population. Subsequently polls done by EMR show that I could have 25–28% of the vote and that the party has 30% of the voting intention nationwide. That caused me to reflect and to see that the electoral support of the Australian public is so high it would be a significant missed opportunity not to run in the election.
As a result of that strong polling, it became a serious proposition. Then, of course, it is necessary not just to have the support of the public, it’s also necessary to have a team that will do the heavy lifting. We already had a loose team in the form of the various WikiLeaks support groups in Australia – most principally WACA [WikiLeaks Australian Citizens Alliance] and its Sydney equivalent.
GR: In terms of the idea of actually entering electoral politics, was that something you’d thought of earlier in the trajectory of WikiLeaks?
JA: If we go even further back, so go back about ten years, although I was involved in many political issues – the great crypto wars of the 1990s, the fight to deregulate the internet in the 1990s, activities in relation to child protection and human rights and counterterrorism legislation – it was always my belief that what is politically possible is defined by the media conditions in a country. Politicians from any side of politics are confined by what information spreads, and what information the media will report, and their view on it, the owners’ view on it, what information will spread, and what won’t, and therefore it was most necessary to change the media environment.
So, to make the press freer, with greater diversity, with more journalists or people acting in a journalistic role. And we have done that in part, an important part. The WikiLeaks Party is not forming government; the role of the WikiLeaks Party is an oversight role in the Senate, to watch over government. That is what WikiLeaks does, and that is what I would be doing in the Senate: using the resources of that position but also the exposure of that position to, on the one hand, get important issues into the media, and, on the other hand, to block legislation that would damage Australians’ free press rights.
GR: But is this something that you thought in 2006 or ’07 would be your role – changing the media environment, changing the structures of knowledge, changing what people think about these things? That you would then segue into being that or that someone else would do it?
JA: No, not as a senator. In some ways, yes, but not as a senator. But, in 2010, as a result of our [WikiLeaks’] conflict, people like Evgeny Morozov said that, whether I liked it or not, I had become a political figure, and I should make proper use of that position.
GR: So a degree of political capital had developed?
JA: It would have been an abuse to waste it.
GR: And so you’d never considered approaching the Greens, etc. to run under their flag?
JA: I considered it but ... look, Scott Ludlam of the Greens, in particular, has been an extraordinarily solid supporter of the issues we care about. However, the Greens have now ... gentrified to the degree that it’s a bureaucratic institution because of its size. That would make it, on the one hand, difficult to get strong support for all our issues, even that we might succeed with some, and, on the other hand, we’re not about to engage in a vicious fight for preselection.
GR: They’re the best party on civil liberties in Australia, but there are differences and contradictions. For example, the Greens support something like the ‘insult and offence’ 18C provision in the Racial Discrimination Act, and now in the new Human Rights Act.
JA: Well, the Greens have made some mistakes, which I’m sure are predominantly the result of resource constraints. For example, they approved the modification to the extradition legislation in Australia, making it much easier to extradite Australians overseas without charge and for political offences. That’s something I know a lot about for personal reasons but —
GR: And you’re saying they were blindsided by —
JA: I suspect so.
GR: So, what, it’s early days in terms of the discussion?
JA: The support for WikiLeaks and for my personal situation crosses both sides of politics and we can see that clearly in the same 23% of conservative voters who say they will vote for me, and 24% of ALP voters saying they’ll vote for me. Similarly, the city–country [split]. So, I think the issues as to freedom of speech, basic liberties, self-determination for Australia as a state, these are issues that cut across Left–Right politics, and they’re better off to pursue them effectively; [it’s] better not to couple them too strongly to other issues.
GR: That brings up the question of if you get a one or even two Senate seats and then, given the complex nature of the Senate, we were likely to get the balance of power, ending up with the independents because the Left and the Greens will for most purposes form a bloc?
JA: The big worry in the election is that the way all three major parties are, the Coalition is overwhelmingly likely to win the lower house, and there’s a chance it will win the upper house as well. That would be a calamity: if the same major party controlled both houses.
GR: That’s pretty much game: the Senate just becomes a rubber stamp. But the interesting question is what happens if it doesn’t.
JA: There are two cases. One would be WikiLeaks being part of controlling the balance of power in the Senate. The other is that the Coalition would also control the Senate. In that case, the role of senators suddenly becomes not to do with their votes in the Senate, it becomes using the profile of their position in the Senate to aggressively scrutinise the lower house and the government through Senate estimates committees and through statements to the media. Because even if the Coalition controls the Senate, it doesn’t control all the media, and the media will still control what is politically possible.
GR: What would the WikiLeaks Party do about stuff that isn’t in its area of focus? Say, something like the proverbial super-phosphate bounty legislation?
JA: Or the Murray–Darling River system ... All actions of government are within the focus of the WikiLeaks Party. The party is not going into government; I am not going into government; I am not going into the legislature simply to push one policy position or the other; we’re going into it in order to reform how the legislature behaves.
WikiLeaks has been acquiring the greatest amount of information about complex topics, dissecting it and presenting it to the Australian people, either in terms of implementation or formulation of legislation itself. If we think of a completely hypothetical issue – if (pause) suddenly wild camels descended on Adelaide and (laughs) and it was necessary to create some legislation to deal with them because they are a cross-border phenomenon, then what we don’t want is what we saw with the intervention in Aboriginal communities under Howard, say, or the detention of refugees. It’s not necessarily that there should have been no intervention, it’s not necessarily that there should be no detention camps, it’s that both these activities were conducted in a secretive manner. They were implemented in a secretive manner, and there have been subsequent cover-ups – in the refugee camps that has meant keeping out the press. So our angle on the “camel invasion” of Adelaide would be to make sure there was as much scrutiny as possible, and what legislation if any was necessary.
GR: So the angle would be, in a way, that to change the form of legislation as it is done on a whole lot of issues. That things should be reflexive?
JA: And across all government endeavours, but we can see where it is especially needed. We all know that corruption and incompetence flourish in secrecy. Then if we can get that into a particular piece of legislation, it becomes purely a matter of ... Say we get that into two rival proposals, then it becomes a matter of whether that fulfils the party’s stated objectives, whether it harmonises in some way with pursuing those objectives.
GR: But not choosing between different methods of camel culling.
JA: From the WikiLeaks’ general principles, it is possible to encapsulate nearly every proposed area of legislation. I cannot see a proposed piece of legislation where our position would not be fairly clearly defined by our principles.
GR: And what would that be in terms of things like the state and the press or the insult to provisions of the Human Rights Act.
JA: Well, let’s look at that because I wrote an opinion piece about [Andrew] Bolt, saying that this legislation, while probably correctly applied by the judge, should never have existed, and that the ability for Australians to freely communicate true information is the underpinning of every law, every regulation. It is the mechanism through which Australian bureaucracy and society are seen and held to account. Freedom of speech is the fundamental enabling right and is the right through which all other rights gain their voice.
GR: So it’s a meta-right.
JA: Yeah, it’s a meta-right that permits the existence of other rights. To see that, just imagine that no one can communicate and, of course, the concept of rights disappears completely. And now – we have to be nuanced about the application of this – if we look at Bolt: here is a man who is choking others to death on his free speech rights; he has had enough free speech rights to marginalise whole segments of the society. This is not a man who needs any more free speech at all. However, everyone else does, and therefore we must in a state of law protect the principle. But from that we see the problem: even if we have in law the right to speak true information freely, that doesn’t mean each person is able to equally apply that right. That’s a matter to do with unequal access to justice and has to do with market dominance by just a few companies within Australia.
Part of ensuring free speech for as many Australians as possible is a diverse media environment in which as many people as possible are able to make use of those rights, and to have a viable journalism sector. That involves issues of cross-media ownership, for example, and other forms of legislation that are necessary to keep diversity in Australia.
GR: So there is a role for the state to play in that area, but not in the other.
JA: Always the real role for the state to play is to keep the market free by preventing big players from themselves becoming like the state.
GR: That brings in an interesting question. I guess, many people would see the implicit politics of WikiLeaks as anarchist, as saying there really shouldn’t be states per se. But, presumably, you’re not really an anarchist in that sense.
JA: No, and the confusion comes from a fairly hackneyed attack by some of my opponents. But, if we’re forgiving to them, here’s where the confusion comes from: their having looked at how information flows and how societies change political discourse.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the interaction between communications and humans that creates all our political structures and even cultural structures – every single one of them, from the constitution up. So we cannot have a system where the bureaucracy is able to arbitrarily regulate what sort of communications occur in society because it is our political communications that regulate the legislature and the bureaucracy.
We can’t have bureaucracy regulating what sort of communications occur in society. Because it is our political communications that regulate the legislative and bureaucratic arms. It’s the communication between Australians that creates agreement or opposition to any given proposal, and that’s the true regulation in any society.
Some of the founders of the US understood this. James Madison, in creating a first amendment, not that the US Congress must create laws protecting journalists, rather the first amendment states there is to be no law inhibiting press or free speech; i.e., to take the communications between individuals outside entirely of the legislature. Because it is the mechanism through which the legislation is regulated. Communication sits above the statements. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise the functionality.
GR: Well, that’s an interesting question because the cypherpunks network had three major political factions. One sort of group would be libertarian American-style. Another group would be classical anarchist. WikiLeaks occupied a third position; it’s always struck me that the politics were more sophisticated .
JA: Californian libertarianism, while it has some important things going for it, is simply too naive if you have a completely unregulated market. We know what happens and the market leader becomes another mini-state, as it were. We can go back and look at company towns in the US southwest, for example, in the early 20th century.
[It’s an] interesting question: whether Google and Facebook have done that or are about to do that.
GR: Yeah, whether they’re de-territorialised states.
JA: So they become their own states. It is very interesting to see that the Californian libertarians have a lot of overlap with classical anarchists. Libertarians are essentially premarket – capitalism is a different beast – whereas the anarchists are not. We have a problem with hidden practice – for both of these groups you simply have big players. If we’re talking about politics on the ground and you have a big brigand or a trade union that simply dominates a region, then you’re back to having a state again. The state re-creates itself – you see that when you have a revolution with too many points of power and they cluster together. That state simply re-creates itself.
GR: One of the interesting things is that WikiLeaks is often labelled as anarchist or anti-American outfit.
JA: The thing is, I’ve run WikiLeaks and other institutions, and I’ve worked in Africa. I’ve seen how hard it is to run functional institutions and functional companies. The issue is not authority, the issue is whether the authority is legitimate.
GR: Yes, that’s what’s interesting because the position you’ve got seems fairly reflexively moderate. In the early papers, some of the stuff you’ve said about open and closed systems and feedback is consonant with some of the positions of the respectable ‘centre Left’ or ‘centre Right’ formulated by people like Popper, positions against , say, Marxism
JA: We have our own position on the function of the state: we’re fairly moderate – I mean, everyone’s a conservative these days. Even those considered to be extreme are (laughs) simply extreme in trying to hold onto the rights we’ve won and not have them tipped down into the gutter.
We are advancing WikiLeaks as a party and as organisation. We are pushing forward in one significant respect and that is communications rights. Distributing knowledge effectively in practice on very serious issues to billions of people – but you have WikiLeaks on the one hand and others like Google on the other that have decided to merge with the state or with some postmodern form of the state.
GR: Which brings us to the next question: having this general approach to the state the question is how has power changed in the past decade? What would you say has happened? What I’m interested in is that you were part of the ‘Suburbia’ Public Access Group in the early 1990s.
JA: That was one of the first three of the ISP in the early ’90s, and that was an idea of how politics was going to be done. Then there were the cypherpunks.
GR: What changed or got you to the point of writing ‘Conspiracy as Governance’?
JA: A lot of things happened. My thinking became more nuanced and that was partly to do with studying theoretical physics . The basis of quantum mechanics is really a derivation of Popperism, and is quite good for working out chains of causality as a conceptual framework, and that improved the clarity of my thinking. At the same time, the internet was going from being an adjunct to society to being its nerve system. The third factor is the cost of running a multinational: info prices were decreasing as time went by.
Although I had the idea to run something like WikiLeaks as far back as 1999 – I’d already registered the name leaks.org – the economics were not feasible at that point for me. They may have been for someone with more capital but the politically interesting part of that was that transnational society has merged with the internet and the internet has merged with transnational society. That’s true for every country, even for the quite poor developing countries: the managerial elite communicating with each other are using the internet.
GR: That has been a mini-epochal breach, but if you didn’t pay attention you wouldn’t really notice because its crept up on us.
JA: Yes, it’s a geometric advance that sneaks up on you if you’re not paying close attention.
I remember in 1994 I was sitting in a cinema with Electron, who was the first computer hacker to be prosecuted – I was the second. We were friends and we were sitting watching this film and the credits rolled and an email address came up, and we looked at each other and we said, “We’ve won.” It was that moment.
The internet has gone through a lot of interesting periods. To start with, as a research-only thing, then pretty quickly merging with the military-industrial complex so that people involved with that became the majority of users. Then universities came in; however, the sections of the universities were those most connected to the military-industrial complex and then a little bit further on computer science and so on. So the coupling becoming as little bit looser in the universities. About that time, computer hackers – young men predominantly, some women ... There was no public access, then organisations like IPANA [Internet Public Access Network Association] democratising the internet and lobbying to get public access to the internet proper and then a commercialisation.
Effectively, once you had deregulation – and it’s a good example of a market working well back in the late ’90s in Australia. Five hundred ISPs and many different approaches tried, and we went from being something that very few people [used] to a majority of the population. In terms of its potentiality and its freedom, the early 2000s were the peak and from that point, and of course 9/11 affected it, the tendencies were clear. Fixed target IP addresses were standard and then you had the major power faction, which is in the military-industrial complex and some corporations. You saw massive consolidation of the ISP sector – which I could see by ’97, which is why I decided to get out of it. Five hundred people were doing it – no need for me to do it – but also [I could see] that there would be a merging of ISPs and the big telcos who controlled the fibre-optic lines.
That consolidation process has continued and has led to very, very big global players like Facebook, Cisco, etc. Those global players find out in their interaction with the big bad world that state power is helpful to them in penetrating foreign markets, regulating competitors out of existence by lobbying and now for regulation on their competitors. So the big players are now compromised with their interaction as a result.
GR And that’s the stage we’re in now, at the end of this process.
JA: And combined with this, there’s another shift associated with changes in technology ... The general blurring out of everything, so where you would once have the NSA [the US National Security Agency] and organisations that were part of government and organisations that were not part of government, where you had the state sector versus the market ... that’s gone now. Now we have a smooth interchange between what we have traditionally called the state and the private sector.
GR: An interlacing, a perfusion ...
JA: Yeah that's across all layers, and if we instrumentalise right down to the people, the people are going through revolving doors. WikiLeaks has published numerous examples of that. For example, where intelligence and counter-intelligence agents sit at the same desk and change their designations from working with the US military to working for private corporations and back again. While they’re working for a corporation, the FOI Act doesn’t apply and so on. There’s also the subcontracting and the interchangeable contracts ...
I’m just looking at the drone industry and how it’s working these days. You have manufacturers in Israel and close connections to the Israeli military making a drone and then they sell the leasing rights to a rights-placement company that then leases it out to other governments per hour. There’s a lot of money to be made in maintenance ... (laughs) It’s like the printer industry, where all the money is made from the cartridges.
GR: So the drone is a loss-leader. It’s interesting that what you’re describing seems to be driving the current wave of privatisation. Like here in the UK, where some of the core functions of policing —
JA: Oh, well, take Serco. Serco was responsible for the maintenance of the ankle bracelet on my leg for nearly 600 days while I was under arrest, as well as immigration services in Australia, the Ghan, the defence contact on the Queen’s jet, and the maintenance of British nuclear weapons, and half the traffic lights, and the prisons, and a few schools —
GR: And the children’s health services in Devon – an interpenetration of services. It used to be that you try to sort out the bits of the state that actively use violence and now that’s just part of the process, and now those have been mixed together ...
JA: Yes, we’ll see what happens when they have the first Serco coup – they might send out a signal, “don’t stop it ...”
GR: Yes, it’s amazing how autonomous this process is. They’ve contracted out all these soft policing services and now they’re contracting out murder investigation services, the core monopoly on violence aspects of the state ...
JA: But we shouldn’t reactively say that it's a problem that the monopoly on violence is being contracted out. Because the monopoly of violence dominates everything else, it’s how laws and regulations are in current force. There’s no meaning to autonomy or the state without it and because abuses of it are so severe – i.e., death or the arbitrary removal of property – that has led to a whole loft of accountability mechanisms to check the abuses, but they apply only to the traditional forms of state violence.
GR: And that’s one reason to contract out because you then create a black box protected by intellectual property.
JA: Yes, you then create these black boxes so that all these FOI inspection mechanisms, reporting requirements … so that senate estimates don’t reply, but also to launder the reputational risk, so that it’s a different name: “It wasn’t us, it was the subcontractor. And it was a subcontractor to them” and so on. So that the flow of political accountability is checked ...
GR: Has this power shift of state and corporate forms changed what WikiLeaks’ priorities are?
JA: We’ve always put our efforts where the organisation is the most powerful and whether that’s a state or a corporation that has the GDP of a state. To some degree we are constrained by where sources are, but in the past, looking at our national security publications, quite a lot of them have come from private contractors.
GR: So these intersecting powers create a sort of porousness.
JA: Yes, well, we’ve seen that with the recent ASIO headquarters ... What a bunch of turkeys. This desire to create the ASIO super-building – it’s absurd. I mean, it’s like you want to put all your intelligence eggs in one basket, seriously.
GR: Yes, John le Carre said this about the new MI6 building, which looks like an MI6 building in a Batman movie, he said, “When the Cold War was on, we used to rent the drabbest office space imaginable under the guise of a greeting card company, and now it’s —”
JA: It’s like the blue under-lighting in fast cars —
GR: It’s a billboard saying, “We’re here and we’re frightening and so keep giving us money.”
JA: But you know I think it’s not just about the domestic politics. If you’ve got the money and resources, show it off. It’s about the competition ... some of the more ostentatious buildings in London come about from British royalty trying to impress French royalty, and the ASIO building is about competition – which HQ most looks like a spy organisation ...
GR: In terms of the transformation of the state and the corporations, we’re now seeing corporations that have every characteristic of a state except territory. And they’re now merging.
JA: Not only monopolies of violence on their own territory but also the capacity to deploy it on other territories.
GR: So the new book by Google head Eric Schmidt?
JA: So, Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, has stated that as Lockheed Martin was to the 20th century, so high-tech companies will be to the 21st century. And on the back cover of Schmidt’s new book, The New Digital Age, there are endorsements from Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Politically, it is an attempt by Google to align itself with Washington power.
Google evolved out of California grad-student culture, a quite humane, harmless if somewhat privileged culture, so how did this come to be? My take on it is that as Google encountered the world and tried to get into India and China, it needed an organisation that understood that, and that was the [US] state department.
Similarly, when computer hackers operating out of China were caught monitoring Google’s user-surveillance system, to see which people Google was helping to spy on for the US government – a great piece of counter-intelligence work, if that’s what it was – Google called in the NSA to check out its internal network, and publicly admitted that. So in its geopolitical desires and conflicts and in its desire for self-protection from other states, it has decided to lean very heavily on the traditional power of the US ... It wanted to become an empire.
GR: But it didn’t have any guns. The mission is on autopilot. It’s like you ask why keep budding off these things, why keep interpenetrating reality, and the answer is we just do what we do ...
JA: This is the nature of power: they’re hungry.
GR: It seems to match the same idea that the neoliberals had in the 1990s. Bill Clinton’s idea that through the Washington consensus and markets you would just extend, and through fairly hideous things, like 9/11, people begin to push back, and that’s when we flip over into a different thing. So Google had that the same approach: the theory that all these guys have coming out of California is a one-dimensional theory of social life ...
JA: That’s right. And if you read that book, it is written through the gilded linguistic banality of the state department channelling silicon valley. That’s why I called that [New York Times] review ‘The Banality of “Don’t Be Evil”’ because [Eric] Schmidt is a logistical genius, there’s no doubt ... the scale of his logistical accomplishments ... but there’s no language, no political language. He describes everything in terms of silicon valley logistics. Similarly, he has this other guy, his co-author, who is really a state department person who worked under Hillary [Clinton] and [Condoleezza] Rice as a young advisor – a good example of continuity between the two administrations – and he is now heading up Google Ideas and effectively heading up Google’s regime change department. Coded within that Google book is a whole section on regime change, and there’s a certain gloating that Google represents that something has to happen in China.
GR: I presume that can connect easily with other interventionist politics in the US. Some actions are then rendered as “common sense”, not a political act. At some point within the Syrian thing you could see —
JA: That’s been fascinating. You know at some early stage in the Syrian case, there was some discussion of who are the Alawites, what does [Bashar al-] Assad want, what does the region want, what’s the interplay, what about Iran, what about Israel ... And now that’s all gone. It’s all forgotten that we know what we want to do ...
GR: “How are these people getting weapons?” And now they’ve lifted the embargo so weapons will be flowing to hundreds of these groups. And that’s presumably because now Qatar and Saudi Arabia are funding the Syrian rebels because it’s an interest thing.
JA: Yeah, and the US has scheduled money, too.
GR: That seems to have been the protest in the West: “We’re losing —”
JA: “Arms sales ... we’re losing arms sales here.” The real horror in the UK was when it was discovered that some of the Free Syrian Army fighters had Chinese weapons, that was not a geopolitical ... I don’t think the Chinese supplied them directly. The Qatar probably bought them ...
GR: So there’s a question in terms of broader social-movement politics like Occupy, and what you would call “the Left” is in a paradoxical position. There has been a series of articles recently about “why with all this stuff going on is there no large-scale Left resistance?”
JA: Well, there are important things going on, like in Latin America. The Latin American solidarity movement has operated in a very impressive manner to remove about a dozen countries over the years from US-dominated dictatorships. That said, I’m not sure its character is what most Australians would call Left. I think it’s essentially nationalist or regionalist, and that’s something that pretty much everyone there can agree on: a region of common geography and heritage and [one that] should not be under the thumb of us or Europe.
More broadly, as a result of the internet merging with society and society merging with the internet, a new forum has been constructed and a new body politic is being constructed, and it’s just working out what its values are. You can’t build a common political structure until you’ve worked out what your values are ...
GR: So that’s one diagnosis. There’s a gap if you like ... It’s not that its strategy and tactics are in question, it’s that its fundamental values are being worked out.
JA: It’s fundamental values are still in flux. Only one has been distilled and that’s the one that is most closely coupled with the medium: the sanctity of freedom of speech and freedom of communication. The next one to come out of that will be freedom of association.
GR: So you would see a building of set of levels, if you like, that would emerge from the new form?
JA: First you need, [to define] what are the common values in this body politic, which isn’t separate to everyone, it is everyone. And then once it’s reasonably clear what the values are, you have particular people arise and say, “We propose this particular method. What do you think?” And that’s a matter of politics. It’s really a cultural and philosophical distillation, leading to clarity about what those values are, and then there has to be a political process.
GR: But that would also suggest one can draw insights about the Occupy movement, for example ...
JA: I think [the Occupy movement] is basically a conservative movement but, well, we’re all conservatives now. We’re just trying to hang on to the rights we’ve got. That said, let’s not be naive about the efforts that were used to destroy the Occupy movement, to prevent it transforming into an effective political force. Lots of documents have come out concerning the FBI working against Occupy essentially as political police and state police, with banking security, nationwide teleconferences being held by these groups against Occupy.
GR: Given all these forces nip things in the bud and there have been these articles in the New York Times about people facing these interconnecting charges and the impact that would have on them getting jobs, etc., it’s a way of destroying a movement. But is there any sort of “let’s go this way over the next couple of years”, “let’s prioritise this rather than that,” which could be drawn off your argument? That it’s really about a process of values determination, rather than an older period of the new Left in the ’60s or ’70s, the values were there and they were known, but there were then a whole lot of strategic questions? Now we have another situation in which everything is in flux. In the basic analysis of what is real, we once had Marxism with the idea of base and superstructure, and now we don’t have that any more – “So you work in communication or do you work in production” that sort of thing.
JA: The distillation of values in the new body politic that’s been created by the internet will continue to occur naturally. I don’t think there’s any special thing that needs to be done provided we keep media diversity and distribution diversity. Democratic recognition that one particular value or another is now dominant is a concrete task that needs to be done. For instance, polling.
Let’s go back to 2010, when I was seen as the symbol of WikiLeaks and its struggle. I won Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ popular vote. [I had] 20 times the number of Mark Zuckerberg, who the magazine decided to award it to. But it’s not just me. Look at the 2012 People’s Choice Human Rights Award, which was won by Bradley Manning. The 2012 Guardian ‘Person of the Year’ popular vote went to Bradley Manning; the 2013 People’s Choice award went to me. The 2012/13 popular vote Time magazine ‘Person of the Year’ went to Anonymous. Indeed every popular internet vote that I know of, for political popularity, has been won either by WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning or Anonymous or me personally.
That’s an amazing thing ... why? Not because my name is Julian Assange but because I happened to be seen to be the embodiment of the first value that’s been developed out of the internet.
GR: It’s not just a slot machine that comes up at random, the people may change but its always someone associated with this...
JA: And the expression of democratic will. If we look, on the one hand, the Chomsky idea about “manufacturing consent”. So when there’s a vote that permits a general expression of political will over Anglophone society over the last three years clearly something is going on.
In the EMR column I have 40% of the youth vote ... it’s astounding. It’s because they are not habituated to voting another way, but also they are much more part of that new politics.
Shouldn’t we have an electoral commission created for this new body politic that the people trust, to have those people that they believe represent its values to be elected?
That would be an important expression of the political will and power, and whoever those people were and whatever form the election would take, whether it would be a ranked list, or a party ticket or something like Australian democracy but on a worldwide scale. The platform it would give those people who were elected would be so powerful.
GR: It would be a countervailing power.
JA: It would be an effective countervailing power to the hidden network society that is emerging – the hidden tendrils of corporate power.
The other thing it’s quite interesting to look at are proper international markets. Are we losing the free market at an international level, in terms of the merger between the private sector networks and state networks, resulting in the private sector using its state buddies to regulate out of existence its competitor? This can narrow the choices for buyers, and that’s clearly happening in some sectors, and look also at the rise of state sovereign funds.
GR: The older barrier to free trade is that the state is horizontal, and free trade is a vertical barrier with tariffs, etc. Then you have these global organisations that channel processes, and that’s where you have these restrictions on the one plane, as it were.
JA: The free market needs “oil” ... The free market is comprised of three things: a medium of exchange, information and a sufficient freedom of choice for both buyers and sellers. All of these are under threat at the moment.
Look at WikiLeaks and the banking blockade we have against us, and that cuts off the lubricant to our activities. Because of our involvement in that – and we have been running many court cases in relation to that, court cases we’ve won – we became interested in economic sanctions more generally, and the abuse of economic sanctions. That’s a very serious issue, adversely affecting hundreds of organisations.
It doesn’t just affect economic rights, it also affects political rights. When it was rumoured that Anwar al-Awlaki – a US citizen, who after 9/11 became a radical preacher and went to Yemen – was put on two US death lists, his family appointed the CCR [Center for Constitutional Rights] to try and represent him, to stop him from being assassinated. However, Awlaki had been placed on an embargo list and, as a result, the CCR couldn’t even represent him, because that would be doing work for him, and that would be considered material assistance to terrorism.
GR: So it’s using an economic sanction to create a political one. It’s an end-run around the constitution.
JA: No greater violation by the state of the law than the arbitrary killing of its citizens and the prevention of any redress.
GR: So you’re relatively sceptical about things like Bitcoins?
JA: No. That’s why I was bringing it up. I think they are an important lubricant. We need a new word for this interconnected, this “network-ocracy” – no, that sounds too much like the internet – this beast. It does gain some of its leverage and control through controlling one of the three features of the market, which is also one of the three features of a state, which is autonomy over your own interaction. And so Bitcoin is breaking the embargo in the case of WikiLeaks. It’s presently the number-one revenue-raising mechanism.
JA: The party is taking Bitcoins, and there’s an attempted attack by the British press, who are always trying to make trouble for me, saying the WikiLeaks Party flouts Australian electoral law by accepting Bitcoins. Which would be the true if the party had been gazetted, provided we had received a donation of more than $12,000.
The situation of Bitcoin is very interesting, because you have a system of payments outside state control. That’s what is great about it and that’s what is terrible about it. In the case of WikiLeaks, when states act in a manner their population has not given permission for, then mechanisms that subvert their actions are good. On the other hand, where a state does represent the genuine informed political will of its population then it should be able to act. But I don’t see Bitcoin as being that dramatic in the scheme of things: we’re just back to silver and gold coins; they’re just a bit faster to move around. It’s pretty much like cash.
GR: Well, you still can’t take more than ten grand of cash across a border.
JA: Well, just put it in necklaces. I mean, women of rich men wear those things; it's not just for looks. And there are contracts: you can walk a contract across a border no problem.
GR: But it has to be honoured at the other end. That’s always the question: the state acted as a guarantor, of sorts. I presumed that Bitcoins only really took off after Cyprus.
JA: No, it's earlier than that. By the end of 2010, it was being used by people who were experimenting with it, and who were driven ideologically to put resources into it. Then they had their breakthrough moment of getting it out. When it was put to him that this would be good for WikiLeaks to break the blockade, Satoshi [Nakamoto] – the pseudonym of the original coder and brains behind Bitcoin – said, “No, no, please. We can’t take the heat yet.” Then we disappeared and went underground, and then we started using it in 2011, and that drew attention to it, and made it more convenient.
At the beginning of 2011, it was running at $10/Bitcoin. It collapsed to $2 or $3 as a result of one of the exchanges being hacked. But after that, it came back very, very steadily from the $3 point all the way up to $90. Then Cyprus happened and it went all the way up to $270, crashed to about $80 and then went back up to about $120. So the trajectory is fairly robust because of the increasing demand, and it’s designed to be like gold, to get harder and harder to produce more, and so it will have the same economic properties.
GR: I was interested in the fact that it suddenly became something everybody was talking about after Cyprus. Cyprus showed you that the state wasn’t necessarily a guarantor, and that was the difference.
JA: Quite interesting. I was told that in the Cyprus situation, by people who live in this region, that they closed all the accounts on the island but the branches of the Cyprus banks in Russia were still operating. So you had all the clued-up people sucking all the money out. Iceland did it in 2008 before the collapse: they introduced currency controls. You had to prove why you wanted to use it before you could take it out, and that still affects WikiLeaks today.
GR: But that’s not Cyprus style, reaching in and grabbing it – which is really just a tax. And it’s not just things like Bitcoin. Lots of networks that exist outside of the dominant Google, Facebook sort of things, rely on the hardware, but they can circulate outside the state.
JA: The hardware is quite interesting. These are hard-line digital anarchists using the most advanced products of industrial Western civilisation, which have as their underpinning the entire transnational system of transnational industry. But one shouldn’t be too critical. Rebels with M16 rifles say it’s their role to make M16 rifles once they’re in power.
The key difference is about control. If we look at that transition between software on your PC, regardless of how it was manufactured, once you had it, it was yours to use, it was under your autonomous control. Now it’s moving to software as service: for example, email sitting on Google. Now Google is combining with the traditional state power apparatus, so the US controls your email, they can read it any time they like.
The disconnect between content and distribution, even if you consider hardware distribution, the fibre-optic line is owned by, say, AT&T – and, yes, we know it’s essentially connected to the US military-industrial complex. Nevertheless, for the international institutional networks this does not change the content: it’s decoupled, it [the content] has become a commodity.
That’s what you want for a proper free market: that all big companies are decoupled, their products become commodities. As commodities, they’re not able to exercise much meaningful leverage. But, in some areas – Facebook, for example – we start to see an interconnection between distribution and content, which is very dangerous.
GR: We were talking the other day of the explicit thing of banning certain groups, and the metering of different connections [by Facebook] for different groups.
JA: That’s what happens when a buyer gets into a position when it’s controlled by the seller; it’s about the churn cost, where the cost of changing sellers is too high. And that’s the case with Facebook: there’s a really high cost of going to a different seller and then the squeeze comes in ... I mean, Brazil, for historical reasons, has a different one – Orkut, owned by Google – and then Russia is trying to, and China, definitely, but everything else is in the Facebook/Google-borg.
GR: It’s not the case that ten competing social media networks can interconnect.
JA: It was once described as “Every state needs a provider of geostrategic intelligence”. Every state that’s not hiding behind another state, has to have geospatial intelligence arms, electronic intelligence so it has to sign up with a provider of that intelligence. So you can go with the market leader, which is the US. If you’re in the right geographic position, you can go with Russia. You can perhaps go with China, perhaps you can go with India, and you can make a constellation elsewhere, but you have a market leader and niche products. That is true for all markets that are global, and the internet makes a global market.
GR: But that then leads to two political questions: do you use state power in that sense to try to enforce openness, some sort of disconnect between content and form, or is it the other thing where you, I don't know, buy your own satellites?
JA: I think you have to fight using the means available, whatever those are – first you have to fight for your survival, whether your principles are good or bad, and then for your principles with whatever means you have.
GR: The Bradley Manning trial will be under way when this is published. What’s the state of play with the grand jury investigation?
JA: The last update is that the US admits that the grand jury continues. The view from my lawyer in the US is that they believe there is a sealed indictment, based on many different reasons, especially the type of communication that the DOJ is having with my lawyers. They’re (laughs) refusing to talk about it in a particular way ... They’re talking about some things but refusing to talk about others in a way that is particularly associated with US law, which criminalises any official from revealing the existence of a sealed indictment.
GR: This is the grand jury catch-all.
JA: Here are some stats on the grand jury: there’s a 99.97% chance you will be indicted, then a 99% chance you will be convicted, and a 97% you will accept a plea deal on the principle that it’s always overcharged and sentences run consecutively. They slice up any event into ten parts, each part carrying ten years, so you would risk a hundred years at trial or take ten, as with Jeremy Hammond.
GR: And this is the American post-justice system that is for the crackdown on hackers.
JA: Or anything that’s perceived to threaten the state. Anything that’s perceived to threaten the domination of the establishment, which security and judicial organs cause to securitise their position and therefore get greater power within the system. On the other hand, you could say anything that’s perceived to threaten the system state power, does. –under the basis that it has less authority if you get away with it.
GR: And also because of interconnected communications systems there’s an echo effect, because previously you could assess an act, like throwing a bomb or something, in terms of the act itself, but now it’s an act of communication as well. So the only way the state can respond is by this confiscation of life, rather than mere punishment.
So, uh, how are you bearing up under that?
JA: I'm used to it; that’s my life. I'm used to it. As for Bradley Manning, he faces a very serious situation, but I know from similar processes that I’ve been through, that he’s working, he’s involved in his defence and the task he has to do. He’s a bright guy. It appears he’s not the type to fall apart. If you’re involved in any serious dramatic event, the time to worry about it is after, not during. I’ve had people say, “How are you doing, Julian?” I haven’t had time to think about it.
GR: That’s what you’ve talked about with the WikiLeaks approach, compared to hacker processes that are less existential, and that was courage and the way to call out a human resistance.
JA: That’s right. I wouldn’t just say resistance because there is legitimate authority. The effective [road] to justice is possible and admirable, and does not only have an effect in the world and on others, but also has an effect on the character of its participants. It is important for people to be swept up in the fight for justice.
GR: So, in that sense, what about We Steal Secrets [Alex Gibney’s WikiLeaks documentary]?
JA: Someone said it was called “We Steal WikiLeaks’ Reputation”. It is now 3.6 out of 10 on IMDB.
GR: What do you think has gone on there? Alex Gibney and others see themselves as dissidents.
JA: I’m not exactly sure “who” Alex Gibney is – he seems to be making a business, he has a factory, he’s churning out three documentaries a year. He’s doing it properly, the last few and the next few are big money things – it was Universal who commissioned this at $2.5 million. Look, when I first met with him and heard he’d gotten a bunch of money from Universal, and was going to make a film, I said, “Why’d you want to make this? What’s your vision?” He said, “Universal commissioned me and WikiLeaks is a game-changer.” He had no idea whatsoever, he had no view and no vision. He had $2.5 million from Universal, and he had the desire to maximise the intra- and inter-character tension and controversy. If you’re not an honourable person, you do that by malicious editing, having talking heads saying things they know are not true – and there’s a personal element as well, in that I refused to be involved.
There was subsequently intense abuse of various people, the personalisation of it as a result. I mean, he accused Jen Robinson – who had merely linked to a critical review that had said Gibney presented Bradley Manning as a gay caricature – of “hate speech” for criticising his film. His staff has been trawling the internet for negative reviews. The star Bradley Manning reporter, Alexa O’Brien, produced an extremely harsh and critical review, and one of his people called and said she was insane.
GR: So it’s a reverse of the WikiLeaks process in the sense that instead of an encouragement of courage, it’s an encouragement of cowardice.
JA: It’s an opportunism. I don’t think its very interesting. Something that is interesting is that Gibney started out his career with these sexploitation films. Essentially, he found the progressive Left on the east coast easier to exploit than porn stars.
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